Guest contributor: Bill Lundgren
categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence
Over the years I have developed a great fondness for the work of Susan Choi. She writes the most exquisitely graceful sentences (Michael Cunningham says “… she has written lines that could be framed and displayed at a sentence festival”), and she seems always to tackle subject matter that is captivating. An American Woman (finalist for the Pulitzer) was a fictional account of the Patty Hearst extravaganza that focused on the victim/heroine/revolutionary’s life on the lam. Choi followed with A Person of Interest (finalist for the PEN/Faulkner) about an academic who becomes a suspect after his colleague is blown to pieces by a Unabomber-like character.
In her latest work, My Education, Choi returns to the hallowed halls of academia, although under her gaze those halls aren’t so hallowed (Choi teaches at Princeton). Regina Gottlieb is a brilliant, beautiful graduate student matriculating at a prestigious unnamed upstate New York university (Cornell perhaps?). She has been warned about Professor Nicholas Brodeur, a charismatic and strikingly attractive figure, but Regina unhesitatingly falls under his sway, accepting a position as his teaching assistant. It is at a semester-ending dinner party that our story gathers steam, both literally and figuratively, when Regina encounters Nicholas’ wife Martha and initiates a torrid erotic affair. The relationship between Regina and Martha, who is also a professor, consumes much of the novel with a singular intensity. The two women, one young and relatively naive and the other, enigmatic and volatile, share a physical attraction for one another that is incendiary and all-consuming, leaving the principals and the reader breathless on numerous occasions.
And then the story shifts, jumping fifteen years into the future. There is a momentary sense of loss at leaving behind characters whose fate has begun to preoccupy one’s thoughts well outside the pages of the novel. We needn’t worry, as Choi displays her maturing instincts as a storyteller, tying the narrative threads and leaving her audience deeply satisfied and sated. Jennifer Egan has described My Education as “… a raw, wild, hurtling foray into the tangled realms of sexuality and self-knowledge. Suasan Choi’s vast gifts as a novelist are all on display, with her restlessness, curiosity, and sheer daring leading the way.”
[Bill Lundgren is a writer and blogger, also a bookseller at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine (“A Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore”). He keeps a bird named Ruby, and teaches at Southern Maine Community College.]